Tag: fantasy

Agent Seeking and Self-Pub Pondering

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So far my efforts to get Sky Pirates of Calypsitania to market have not met with success. The rejections have ranged to form “not at this time” letters to more personal “not at this time” letters, but the net result is the same, i.e., “not at this time.”

I’ve been pretty carefully targeting my pitches to maximize their chances, but alas I am starting to run out of “top tier” possibilities and I have to consider what to do next. As this is my strongest book to date and what I hope will be the beginning of a personal “franchise” (to coin a marketing term), I don’t want to make any giant newbie mistakes that will come back to bite me later, but at the same time, I do need to start making some headway.

So I am now considering self-publication. It’s not really where I wanted to go with this book– my long-term goal for this one is “See it on the shelves at Barnes & Noble.” However, I also need to actually get books out there being read and making money, which they can’t do just sitting on my hard drive receiving rejection letters.

I think I’ve also started making headway on the next book, although it’s still quite vague in my mind, to wit: another book in the same setting as Sky Pirates. As much as I love Verity and Tanya and I want to know more of their story, they’re only two people in a much wider world, and they’ve earned a rest from adventure for a while, the poor dears. Plus, they’re getting out of the airships business (or at least trying to), but I’m still interested in following that thread. So that means finding someone else to write about!

So while what is probably the last round of agent pitches goes out, I’m going to hit the Scrivener corkboard and start plotting. If any of my writing industry friends have suggestions for getting the current book rolling, however, I’d love to hear them!

-The Gneech

Time For Something New

Okay, now the moving is pretty much dealt with (again and hopefully for the last time any time soon) and my AnthroCon prep is about as far as it can go until it comes time to actually put stuff into the car, it’s time to get back into the writing groove.

And, I think, time to come up with something new. I’ve got chunks of Brigid and Greg, I’ve got a giant blorp of Michael Macbeth, but honestly my brain wants a break from those. I want something new and different to think about.

What that is, I’m not sure yet. I periodically consider writing a fairly standard genre fantasy book, i.e. elves and wizards and things, but I would like to find a way to put a fresh spin on the idea so it’s not just “Howard McTolkienface and the Etcetera of Ditto.” I also want whatever it is to be a project I can have fun with. One of the things that I relished about Sky Pirates of Calypsitania was that Verity and Tanya were fun characters to write about, because of the chemistry between them. The fun was a bit hampered by the harrowing circumstances they lived through, of course… those poor gals are going to have some PTSD to deal with in the next book I suspect, assuming there is one.

A new thing would also come without baggage, or at least with different baggage. B&G and Michael Macbeth both suffer a bit from having a “what they should be like” thing I’m trying to stick to… a new project I could just open up and let it be its own thing. A lot of the stuff that’s been bothering me about my older ideas, can inform the direction I go with new ideas right from the start. I can also outline with a view towards writing 100,000 words, instead of coming up with yet another 60,000 word idea and then being stuck for another half a book to tack onto it. 😛

So I think for the next week or so, depending on how long the process takes, I’m going to simply play around with new ideas and brainstorm, figuring out what I want out of a book, what I would enjoy writing, and what I think would suit the market, and find something that covers that part of the venn diagram that intersects all three. As much as I like Sky Pirates, my discussions with professionals on the topic all suggest that it’s going to be a hard sell for a first novel. So I might have to tuck it into a drawer to pull out later once I’m already a name, so to speak.

-The Gneech

Monster Monday: My Little Monster Studies

Okay, okay, it’s not a monster writeup. But it has a monster in it, and it’s Monday. So deal with it!


My Little Monster Studies: Displacer Beast by the-gneech on DeviantArt

Commission for Miertam, possibly the start of a new series, of Twilight learning all about monsters… the hard way. This episode’s entry is that adorable little six-legged tentacular light-warping critter, the displacer beast. Fluttershy, of course, thinks it’s adorable… and clearly Twilight is speechless with admiration!

Such a weird-honkin’ monster and one of my favorites, even if I rarely actually use them. 😀 Inspired originally by “Voyage of the Space Beagle” by A. E. van Vogt if my memory serves correctly, modified slightly and now immortalized by Dungeons and Dragons. Aside from its devious nature, the displacer beast has a permanent illusion of being some distance from its actual body. I never really thought that would actually be that confusing until I started drawing this, but now I can totally see it.

On an artistic note, for this pic I decided to do a piece that used the pony character models but drawn in my own style rather than trying to simply mimic the MLPFIM style. Whattya think?

-The Gneech

Phandelver as Plot Point Campaign

I may be projecting, but I’m fairly sure I see some Savage Worlds influence in 5E, particularly around inspiration (which acts something like SW bennies) and around the organization of the Lost Mine of Phandelver adventure in the Starter Set, which has an uncanny resemblance to a smallish Plot Point Campaign.

Plot Point Campaigns (or PPCs), for those not familiar, are essentially “campaign-in-a-book” supplements for Savage Worlds in which there is a major story arc (the “plot points,” so to speak), but there are also tons and tons of smaller adventure hooks. Generally speaking no single scenario (including the “big finish”) is longer than a page or two, and everything is very sketchy and loosely-connected. The main thrust of the campaign is usually scattered across the map and delves deeply into the setting’s backstory: in 50 Fathoms, the archetypal PPC, the main campaign is all about discovering the story of the three witches who are drowning the world, and thwarting their apocalyptic plans. But there are so many side stories that it could take years for the players to get there, if ever. The PPC gives you an opening scenario that immediately puts your players into the middle of the action, but where they go from there is pretty much up to them.

Usually in a PPC, later scenarios have “prerequisites” before they can happen: “none of the Colonize Monster Island quests can happen until the players have completed the Discover Monster Island quest,” that kind of thing. But beyond that, there’s very little structure. Don’t give a damn about Monster Island? That’s fine, there’s plenty to do over in Adventurelandia. Some quests are stand-alones, some come in chains, some of them are cross-referencing, and so on. But all are short and usually only developed in the sketchiest way, allowing lots of room for GM interpretation and fleshing out.

The best PPCs also include a method for procedurally-generating content, when the GM needs a “filler adventure” or the players decide to wander off the map. It can be as simple as a handful of “insert here” encounters, or it can be as complex as a matrix of rolling on columns A, B, C, and D to get “The Prince wants you to kidnap/steal the sacred gem of Ul from the tomb of a cursed priest.” 50 Fathoms also has a Traveller-esque trading system, designed to get your characters schlepping stuff from place to place so you can find the interesting patrons in each location. [1]

It occurred to me, as I was going through Phandelver, that it appears to have been written in a similar way. As a PPC, the Rockseeker Brothers, their attempts to excavate Wave Echo Cave, and the machinations of The Black Spider would be the main plot points, with the Redbrands, Thundertree, Old Owl Well, Wyvern Tor, and Conyberry all being side-stories, and the wandering monster table being the filler “adventure generator.” The main difference is scale. In a PPC, you have a large-scale campaign presented in tiny, sketchy chunks; in Phandelver, you have a small-scale campaign presented in big, detailed pieces.

This, I think, is pretty nifty, and I’d really like to see WotC continue this approach in the future. How cool would a 5E Eberron Plot Point Campaign be, for instance? Not a single mega-adventure like Seekers of Ashen Crown, which only works if your players are willing to follow a single spoon-fed storyline, but a tapestry of scenario hooks so that if your players hop on an airship to Karrnath on short notice, you could just turn to the Karrnath section of the book and have five paragraphs of potential things ready to go when they got there? With bounded accuracy and the flatter power curve, I can imagine a supplement like this really working in a way that it couldn’t have done in 3.x/PF or 4E, and I would actually very much love to see it.

-The Gneech

[1] There’s probably a very interesting blog post to be written about how 50 Fathoms is basically a Traveller campaign with a fantasy skin… but that’s for another time. Or perhaps another blogger.

The Grand Unified Theory of Gneech’s Campaign Worlds

I have run a lot of fantasy games over the years. Many of them have only had a few sessions before the group changed or something turned me off about them, while others have lasted for years. This has left a long string of half-realized settings, abandoned PCs and potentially interesting scenarios, cluttering up my hard drive (and my creative subconscious).

I have discovered, with the arrival of 5E, a strange urge to reclaim the pieces of this patchwork, and try to weave them together into something resembling a persistent and connected setting, which I can use going forward as background for diverse games without having to throw away everything and start from scratch over and over. This is part of a larger rekindled love for the game, which I have to admit had been struggling, and I am very happy to see returned. I imagine I’ll explore the why and how of that aspect later, but for now, I’m looking at the campaign worlds and how they can work as a unified world.

The Ones Still Left Behind

Not all of my games can be united this way. Eberron is too distinctively itself to be put into another setting, and the fate of that particular campaign is still TBD. Fortress of Tears, likewise, cannot be simply transplanted. The cosmology and structure of that game was designed to be a cohesive whole with a very specific feel, and while I doubt I’ll do anything with it any time soon, I think it deserves its own space on the shelf, so to speak. The tongue-in-cheek setting of “Mid-Evil” is not itself going to be integrated into the world, although bits of it that I liked might be imported. Finally, my Fantasy Hero setting was too far removed from the premises of a “D&D-land” style setting to really integrate, so it also remains its own thing.

Orbis Leonis

This is the setting as it currently stands. Racial/cultural notes are broad strokes and not intended as a straightjacket: it’s a wide, colorful world and there are enclaves of different cultural groups in every major city. Demihumans and monstrous humanoids have been largely left out of the discussion because for the most part I don’t have a whole lot of different cultures for them worked out and I don’t want to put in any limits I don’t have to. Assume the usual baseline for Dungeons & Dragons for such folk unless you have a reason to do otherwise. Campaign-specific races (such as the nephilim from Zan-Xadar or Sirfox’s gnoll cleric in Red Hand of Doom) exist, but are local populations rather than world-defining ones.

The Silver Coast
Bringing the world together begins with The Silver Coast. Argent is on the northwest edge of a large continent which is bordered by several seas and island continents to the south. Not too far north of Argent the climate quickly becomes cold, and there is a large glacial “land mass” that expands and contracts with the seasons, connecting the main continent with an arctic continent for half the year (being a cold and stormy sea for the other half). Legends tell of a zone of permanent warm paradise in the center of this arctic zone, but you know what legends are.

South of Argent is the kingdom of Ertikan. North and northeast of Argent are various “barbarous” (by Argentile standards) peoples, the friendliest of which are the blonde- and red-haired Calladgangers, but most people of the northwestern part of the continent tend towards fair or ruddy skin and hair colors and curly or wavy locks. The religion of this area resembles the core religion of Faerun, unless specified otherwise, although the gods of Oerth are also known here.

Fellhollow/Rise of the Argent Lord
That game (all two sessions of it) took place 600 years ago; Argenti, “The Silver City,” was later rebuilt as Avileigne… only to have Mt. Thunderdelve erupt and destroy it. That place can’t catch a break. (The modern city of Argent takes its name from the older one, even though it is actually some thirty miles to the northwest. Sort of a “New Argent,” as it were.) The town of Fellhollow was destroyed during the orcish invasion known as the Rise of the Argent Lord; the later town of Pelann was built near its ruins (and, like Avileigne, destroyed again by the eruption of Thunderdelve).

Red Hand of Doom/Revenge of the Giants
A wide, grassy plain on the eastern side of the Silver Ridge Mountains eventually connects to “The Endless Plain” in the northwest corner of the Elsir Vale map. Most of the plain is sparsely populated, but there are nomadic horse tribes related to the Calladganger peoples (think Rohirrim) and at least one large civilized city-state (as yet undefined) lies by a large freshwater lake or inland sea on the one major road between Argent and Elsir Vale. The events in the Silver Coast game are concurrent with the indefinitely-hiatused Revenge of the Giants game (thus, Elsir Vale is currently in the midst of a deep and unnatural winter), and it is conceivable that the two games could connect in the future, allowing characters to overlap. The people of Elsir Vale tend to be of fair complexion, with thick, dark hair, although much variation is common. The religion of this region resembles the core religion of Oerth.

The Greyhawk Campaign/Shadows of Thessalaine
The country of Thessalaine, which bears a remarkable resemblance to a similar country on the world of Oerth named ‘Bissel’, lies to the northeast of Elsir Vale, beyond the Giantshield Mountains (referred to in Thessalaine as The Barrier Peaks). Some years ago now, the infamous necromancer Evard the Black attempted to conquer Thessalaine, but was eventually defeated by “The Watchful Seven” (a group whose variable roster most reliably included Kyriela of Kithria, Jaer, Dragor, Angelina, and Verdhaven). Thessalaine has a very diverse population, being a sort of “crossroads of the world”. The religion of this region generally also resembles the core religion of Oerth. To the east of Thessalaine is terra incognita for the moment.

Zan-Xadar, Jewel of the South, City of the Wicked
Zan-Xadar is on the southernmost tip of the continent, far southeast of the kingdom of Ertikan and south of Thessalaine across the Desert of Xadar, as is its neighbor/rival city-state of Khaldun. The island city-states of Kithria and Nellevar are in the warm Opal Sea, south of the continent, and the near-mythical (to the Silver Coast, anyway) nations of Alcairam and Setranophis are on the northern lip of a vast continent far to the south populated by nations largely unknown to the north. The one adventure we actually ran in Zan-Xadar (“The Fallen Fortress”) can be assumed to have “just happened” if and when a future game takes us back there. The peoples of this region tend towards darker skin and hair colors, with dark brown or black skin dominating Alcairam particularly. The people of Setranophis are a distinct racial group with reddish-brown skin and very fine black hair. The religion of this area is a crazy hodge-podge of cults from around the world, although the worship of Bahamut, Tiamat, Methis/Erathis/Titania, Nergal/Garagos, Baaltis/Ioun, Fortuna, and Kelaeno (a.k.a. Mother Hydra, a.k.a. Umberlee) are prominent in the great glittering cities. Setranophis and Khaldun have sanctioned state religions, an ancestor cult and the Goddess of the Black Flame respectively, and the worship of other deities is strictly illegal in both places. The people of Zan-Xadar and its neighbors are cosmopolitan and sophisticated, and regard the people of the northern realms (with the possible exception of Thesselaine) largely as bumpkins. (Thessalaine replaces Beltharain from the original Zan-Xadar setting; heck, they even sound similar.)

Castle Strongstone, the “Tower of Power”, and the Tomb of the Zodiac
These are places of myth and legend, associated with the tales of the great human wizard Mystic the Strange, the wily elf-rogue Fgyarbt, and the gnomish trickster Zarfbardafardwards. It is generally believed that their adventures took place in a lost country somewhere north of Thessalaine or Elsir Vale, although many lands claim to be “where it really happened.” The objective truth of the matter has long been lost to the ravages of eons; who or what a “Slick Rick” might be, no man may say.

The Empty Spaces Between…

Assume that unless it is explicitly states otherwise, there are other nations in between the ones listed here which have simply “not become important yet,” but will be added in around these as needed. These realms, though connected, are all distant lands, and travel between them is done via map montage. 😉

Thoughts/comments/suggestions, players…?

-The Gneech

Digging In the Old School Sandbox

There’s a lot of talk in the gamer blogosphere about the new edition of D&D‘s compatibility with OSR (“Old-School Renaissance” or “Old School Roleplaying,” depending on who you ask). And while there’s not always consensus on exactly what OSR consists of, there is no question in my mind that that 5e has been strongly influenced by the OSR movement, from mapless encounters to wandering monsters.

Hand-in-hand with OSR comes the concept of “sandbox play,” a style in which the DM does not create scenes or story beats, but rather maps out locations and creatures/NPCs, gives them goals, and starts them rolling, then turns to the players and says, “What do you do?” There is no story until the players bring one to the table; what scenes or exciting things happen are purely emergent based on what the players do.

The Lost Mine of Phandelver in the Starter Set has been largely praised by reviewers for its “sandbox” nature, especially the portions that take place in and around the main town. There are multiple potential patrons with sometimes conflicting goals, and there are multiple ways to get involved with and approach most of the adventure locales. There’s only one real “railroad” moment, and that’s right at the start of the game: you will be ambushed by goblins as the first encounter. From there, even though there are adventure hooks, you don’t have to follow any of them and it isn’t assumed that you necessarily will.

Some of the hooks are obvious: your patron has been carried off by goblins and if you want to get paid (or are simply loyal to him), you’ll probably want to go track him down. But the adventure doesn’t break if you don’t. Once you get to the town, there are plenty of other factions to get involved with or adventure leads to follow up on. For that matter, there are trails leading out into the wilderness, so you don’t even need to go looking for adventure hooks if you don’t want to. You can just head out on the road and see where it leads you. Of course, if your initial patron dies, you’ll lose the benefits of having him around and any further leads he might have had for you, so it’s not without consequences– but it’s also not a “game over” screen, so to speak.

Prior to Dragonlance, this was actually the norm in D&D adventure design, and in some ways it’s very liberating, for both the players and the DM. In a story-based game, the DM has to make sure there are no major plot holes, or the players will immediately and inevitably find them and break your story. And you have to be sending the players through a story they’re interested in, or else the whole thing will fall flat at best, or create friction at worst. As a player, I’ve spent sessions grinding my teeth because I felt forced into a scenario that I didn’t want to participate in and had no control over, because there was a plot I was supposed to follow whether I wanted to or not. As a DM I have certainly been guilty of forcing that on my players in the past as well, and I always regret it afterwards.

But it’s not like it’s all “story-based bad, sandbox good.” One main pitfall of a sandbox game is the chance that when you ask the players, “What do you want to do?” they’ll shrug and say, “I dunno, what do you want us to do?” I recently encountered an extreme version of this with my Eberron game when I presented the players with a list of jobs available at the adventurer’s guild, asked them to pick one, and they simply stared at me. It was not unlike trying to run a campaign based on Bartleby the Scrivener, and I’m still trying to figure out what I did wrong there.

The other major pitfall, from what I’ve read, is that the players will feel like there’s “nothing to do.” They might hear a rumor of a dungeon across the mountains or a shipwreck on an island, or perhaps they’re even wandering from wilderness hex to wilderness hex having a long string of random encounters, but none of it feels like it matters. “When do we get to the story?” seems to be the chief complaint of players in this kind of situation, to which the standard sandbox answer is, “There isn’t a story, until you make one.”

Right now at least, as a DM I’m leaning towards the sandbox model. It requires a lot of mapping out locations and writing up encounters that may or may not be used, but on the other hand, I don’t have to keep coming up with a never-ending stream of plot twists and compelling narratives. I once had a player flat out tell me, “I don’t want to make a story, that’s your job.” At the time I didn’t know what to say to that; these days my answer would be, “Why should I have to do all the work?”

…Which bring me back to 5E, and the bounded accuracy model. 3.x/Pathfinder, with its extreme power scaling, could be run sandbox style, but wasn’t great at it. An encounter that would be a TPK at one level, would be a pushover two levels later, and the whole narrative flow of the game, as well as advancement and treasure acquisition, was based on the model of “mostly normal encounters, plus one or two challenging ones and one or two easy ones.” That meant that you had to constantly scale the world up to match your group, or at the very least make sure everything was in a fairly narrow range.

For sandbox play, that pretty much sucked, because it meant constantly retooling the world around the PCs. This was usually done by moving them from zone to zone like an MMO, so characters didn’t start to wonder why, when they wiped out that cave full of goblins, it was replaced with a cave full of trolls.

Theoretically at least, with 5e’s flatter power curve, the basic ecology of a region can stay the same and still have interesting or challenging encounters over the course of several levels. The wilderness encounter table in Phandelver, for instance, has something as piddly as three stirges (75 XP) all the way up to something as fearsome as five ghouls (1000 XP), and is intended to cover levels 1-5. I pity the group of 1st level characters who get set upon by five ghouls in the middle of the night– but the possibility of that kind of thing happening is a hallmark of both sandbox play, and OSR. It’s also something that you probably wouldn’t see in 3.x/Pathfinder[1].

-The Gneech

[1] Or 4E either, I’d imagine, but that’s because 4E would want to set it all up on a map with a giant magic boulder rolling around in circles doing necrotic damage every other round for no good reason…